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What Netflix Tells Us About a Bright Green Future
Alex Steffen, 14 Sep 06

netflixenvelope.jpg How do we live well, without harming the planet, other people, or our own future prospects? That seems to me to be one of the central issues we now face.

In having a conversation earlier about product-service systems, the substitution of access for ownership, and the sustainability implications of a shift towards services which provide the experiences and relationships we want without bring more stuff into our lives, it occurred to me that we already have one great, recent example: Netflix.

Netflix is a product-service system for DVDs. By signing up for the service, you are able to rent movies you want to see, without having to own them. So far, so good, and much like a traditional video store. However, Netflix goes one better on sustainability terms, by letting users order movies online and delivering the DVDs via the regular postal mail. Now I'm sure they made the decision to do this based entirely on cost savings, but as it turns out, there are real sustainability savings involved as well: by not having a store to which I drive to get the videos, the planet is spared the impacts of a retail outlet, as well as all those trips back and forth, each of which uses (though I haven't run the numbers, I'm sure this is true) far more fuel and generates far more pollution than do the daily rounds of the local mail carrier (who is, after all, making the trip anyway).

Of course, even better would be eliminating the DVD altogether. As one study showed, "Downloading 56 minutes of music is more than two and a half times less resource intensive than going to a shop to buy a CD, even if the music is burnt on to a CD-R." Now, if you eliminate the step of burning it onto a DVD, downloading a movie would have a clear environmental advantage over even having it be mailed.

The biggest remaining problem would be the currently deeply unsustainable nature of consumer electronics, which leach vampire energy , operate inefficiently and leave behind them a toxic stream of waste. But we're already making great strides towards producing a green computer, and there's every reason to believe that with committed effort, we can create cradle-to-cradle, extremely efficient electronics.

If those electronics were then powered by clean energy, we'd be a long way towards getting the experience we want (being able to crash on the couch with our loved ones and watch a movie) at the sort of reduced ecological footprint the planet demands.

Obviously, some services are much harder to dematerialize. It's not going to get noticeably easier to reduce the massive impacts of jet travel anytime soon, for instance, and so, for the moment, having the experience of, say, a foreign vacation still requires us to engage in planetary ruin, with at best the worst effects mitigated around the edges.

That said, it's important to remember that we don't have to achieve perfect sustainability in all the aspects of our life simultaneously and at once. While reducing our overall impact by 90% by 2050 seems insanely daunting, if we can make relatively big strides in certain areas (say housing, personal transportation, food and consumer goods) through a mix of better technologies, compact living and the substitution of services for products, we can buy ourselves the time to come up with better answers for some of the thornier questions facing us.

This doesn't require magic or alien intervention. It does require changed thinking about how we tackle the material demands created by our nearly-universal desire to live the good life.

Indeed, it seems increasingly likely to me that with new thinking a new kind of life could actually be lived -- a modern, affluent life, sufficiently re-envisioned and designed with a full understanding of the tools already at our disposal -- which would demand an ecological footprint that is half, a third, a quarter, even a fifth of that of the average affluent North American lifestyle today, while offering an improved quality of life, and probably even financial benefit to those living it.

Since one of the planet's most pressing needs is giving people an idea of a sustainable future for themselves and their families which doesn't involve a retreat back to the Middle Ages (since, in fact, such an answer is no answer at all, it seems to me that trying to imagine, describe, build and sell this new kind of life should be pretty near the top of the environmental to-do list.

Any effort to retrofit completely unsustainable lives with technological quick fixes, tail-pipe solutions and lifestyle props is probably bound to fail. The 1990s affluent suburban, conspicuous-consumption lifestyle is itself a big part of the problem. To try to provide the planet with ex-urban sprawl, McMansions, fast food and SUVs, but in a slightly more sustainable way is to seek, as Thoreau would say, improved means to an unimproved end.

I believe that are good enough designers and innovators to create a better way of living, and that, with an improved end in mind, the means will reveal themselves in the tools, models and ideas we already have at hand, and are just beginning to fully understand. And since the lifestyles of those of us in the developed world are to some degree implicated in nearly every major planetary problem, from climate change to civil wars, to improve the end towards which we are working is to offer a lever to transform the wider world as well.

Call it the Archimedes principle of sustainable globalization.

So order a movie this weekend, pop some locally-grown corn, and, as the previews roll, do a little day-dreaming about the end towards which you really want to be working, and the life you really want to live.

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Great point, and let me add another interesting angle: Is downloading pirated movies and music helping save the environment? By this logic, I think so! Never thought of it that way.

Posted by: Alex Mingoia on 14 Sep 06

Netflix is an instructive example. They've developed a business model which makes renting movies cheaper at the basic price margin (if you usually rent 5 movies per month). They also made selecting videos a far better process than going to a store and walking around, wondering what to get.

One thing that people don't usually consider is that they also denecessitated driving to and from the video store for over 2.6 million people and counting, just with their own customers, as well as all the other people using competing services from Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, etc, who are using the Netflix business model.

And what's interesting is that Netflix doesn't make a big deal out of it. In fact, I wonder if you can find anyone labeling them a "green company". The only thing I've found along these lines from them is buried in a "fun facts" page on their website, where they say:
"If Netflix members, instead of receiving movies by mail, drove two miles each way to a rental store, they would consume 250,000 gallons of gasoline per day and release 750,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually."


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 14 Sep 06

I disagree on a larger level: NetFlicks encourages you to stay inside your house, you don't go out and have the social interaction with the people in the video store who, for me, are a local business well deserving of my time and money.

NetFlicks, like Amazon, is a corporation whose goals are to make as much money as possible. They both do this by taking on your local businesses. I think a walk, or even a drive, to a local business is more important for the community and hence the world, then getting cheap movies in the mail.

For by using NetFlicks to save that little bit of gas, what are we losing in return?

Posted by: BoulderPoet on 14 Sep 06

Blockbuster killed off the indie stores long ago, and is actively moving away from brick-and-mortar itself.

Same thing has happened for books and music.

Technology changes, certain types of businesses die out.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 14 Sep 06

If you live in some places in the States, Vongo allow people to legally rent dvds by temporarily downloading them, instead of sending them in the mail.

Posted by: Hazel on 14 Sep 06

I liked Netflix. I had to cancel for financial reasons but I did like the service. The selection is hundreds times better than anything local. The irritation (too many pseudo psychic-mindreaders)shopping at local video stores has many people here using them.

The service was timely and I only had one problem that turned out to be the mail here other than that I found the service fantastic.

Posted by: pam on 14 Sep 06

i like netflix but do agree that by not having a physical go to place, a social experience is lost. also a cultural one. the chance for someone to reccommend a movie title, the chance to meet a friend or stranger. and i disagree that indie stores are dying out b/c of new technologies. they are changing and adapting and can do so faster than large corporations who avoid risks.

Posted by: ginar on 16 Sep 06

I don't think that we can deny that the savings of greenhouse gas emissions by this service are critically needed. At the same time, sustainability is not something achievable by society without well connected communities. Although this service removes one type of connection we typically have with our local community, it also opens doors for other types of connections. With downloading movies, or music for that matter, we have an oppotunity to support film makers and musicians operating outside of the corporate realm, who will be better taken care of by us than by corporations. And then, what is stopping us from forming vibrant connections with those in our community by organizing film screenings or movie nights with people in our neighborhoods, where real discussion, understanding, and proactive action can start to take seed... If we can use technology to reduce our footprint on the ozone, we need to; and if we have an opportunity to create community, we need to take it.

Posted by: Oliver Smith Callis on 21 Sep 06



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